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August 2014

Book Review: THE STORIED LIFE OF A. J. FIKRY by Gabrielle Zevin

fikry coverI haven’t written much in the last two weeks because the books and movies I consumed were either sadly bland or outright annoying. The curse was broken when I read Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, a gem for those who believe “a town isn’t a town without a bookstore.”

A. J. Fikry is a curmudgeon who owns a bookstore in a fictional town called Alice, a small island off the New England coast. He lives alone above the store after his pregnant wife Nic died in a car accident.

One day, when he returns after a run, he finds a two-year-old girl abandoned in his store. The accompanying note identifies the child as Maya, and her mother, who’s unable to take care of the toddler, wishes for the little girl to be raised around books.

A. J. at first considers turning Maya over to children’s services, but he and the child quickly form a bond and he ends up adopting her. What follows is a story of a man teaching his daughter the value of words, how they can transform us, illuminate us, and help us communicate love.

Though the book contains only 258 pages, Zevin manages to pack in a lot of story and emotions. She does this by choosing just the right amount of words to incisively describe scenes and people. Here’s the description of the social worker who comes for Maya:

If Jenny were a book, she would be a paperback just out of the box—no dog ears, no waterlogging, no creases in her spine. A.J. would prefer a social worker with some obvious wear.

Here’s a portrait of A.J.’s sister-in-law:

In the fifteen or so years he has known her, A.J. thinks Ismay has aged like an actress should: from Juliet to Ophelia to Gertrude to Hecate.

And how can you not agree with a man who believes you can learn everything you need to know about a person based on his/her answer to the question What’s your favorite book?

Life is heartwarming without being saccharine, incredibly moving without trying too hard to jerk your tears. A. J. may soften up a bit after Maya enters his life, but he stays true to who he is; he doesn’t suddenly turn all mushy. And Maya is adorable but not cloyingly so.

My only quibble is that there are some issues with the tense. The narrative is written in present tense, so when a character refers to something in the past, simple past tense should be used, not past participle. For example,

She thinks back to a sophomore seminar she had taken in literary theory…

Should be:

She thinks back to a sophomore seminar she took…

The inconsistent tense became a bit distracting at times, but the story is so lovely, the characters so memorable that this book will easily be a top-five (if not top-three) book for me this year.

Nerd verdict: Life is beautiful

Amazon | IndieBound

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Movie Review: THE GIVER

the-giver-brenton-thwaites-baby

The Giver, adapted from Lois Lowry’s Newbery Medal-winning novel, opens in black and white, with best friends Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), Fiona (Odeya Rush), and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) living in a dystopian community free of strife. Every day is sunny and every lawn looks perfectly manicured.

Residents receive an injection every morning to remove all feelings and the ability to see colors, and people are assigned families and jobs. There’s no free will, but that’s because—as the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) says—when humans are given choices they choose wrong every time.

The exception is the Receiver of Memory (Jeff Bridges), the only person who remembers what the world used to be like—full of music and dancing and sunsets and colors. His job is to advise the council of elders in their decision making. He’s getting up in years, though, so Jonas is chosen as the next Receiver and Bridges’s character becomes the Giver.

The training goes fine until a baby’s life is endangered and Jonas realizes he wants the capacity to feel love and joy and all the other emotions. He rebels, and the elders must stop him from destroying the community and the way of life they’ve painstakingly built.

Not having read the book, I’m going to venture it’s a difficult piece to adapt for the screen. The concept of people being protected from the heartbreaks and messiness of life is thought provoking and maybe even attractive, considering how chaotic and distressing the world is right now (the book was released in 1993). But the idea probably works better in literary form, because film is a visual medium that requires more than actors with robotic mannerisms.

For most of the movie, Thwaites, Rush, and Monaghan give flat line readings and exhibit few facial expressions. I understand this is how their characters are supposed to be, but it’s difficult to stay invested in such bland people. After Jonas is exposed to the Giver’s memories (and colors start leaking into the movie), Thwaites’s performance doesn’t get much more interesting.

Bridges and Streep fare better, but their work here won’t garner them any award nominations. Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgard as (Jonas’s) Mother and Father are utilitarian. Taylor Swift shows up for a tiny part; her presence feels like stunt casting.

Director Phillip Noyce’s talents also seem to have been underused, since The Giver is neither fast paced nor thrilling like some of his past movies such as Salt and Patriot Games. Giver is not bad, but—perhaps fittingly—it doesn’t elicit much of an emotional response, one way or the other.

Nerd verdict: Unrewarding Giver

Photo: The Weinstein Company

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